Ungerrymandering Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania gerrymandering case that was handed down today is a Big Deal, but let’s not get carried away with making predictions about how many seats it’ll cost the Republicans. Keep in mind that in the old set of 18 districts in Pennsylvania includes:


  • Four Very Safe Democratic districts (3 in Philadelphia, 1 in Pittsburgh)
  • Six swingy but R-leaning seats in eastern PA, each of which is substantially gerrymandered: PA-06 (R+2), PA-07 (R+1), PA-08 (R+2), PA-15 (R+4), PA-16 (R+5), PA-17 (R+1). (Democrats currently hold the 17th.)
  • Finally, eight solidly Republican seats, all of which have a PVI of at least R+10.

I tried to come up with a new map that took the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s only mandate to its logical conclusion: avoid splitting up counties (and then, cities) as much as is practicable. I think I did a pretty good job of it, honestly:


So where does this new map leave Dems, then? Back-of-the-napkin PVI calculations follow at the very end of this post, but here’s a summary:

  • Two districts in Philly (New PA-01 and 02 on this map), Very Safe.
  • One district in Pittsburgh (New PA-16), Very Safe.
  • One district each based in Montgomery (New PA-04) and Chester Counties (New PA-05), each reasonably safe for Democrats (and likely to creep even safer as the Philly population continues to move outward in the metro).

That’s…actually it for safe Dem districts. We bump up just one, to five.

Ah, you say, but what about the swing districts? There must be more swing districts now! Well, there are five swing districts. And, as it turns out, they all still tilt toward the Republicans:

  • New PA-03, R+0. Bucks County is also growing bluer, but not quickly, and this is likely as close to a true swing district as you can get for 2018 and 2020.
  • New PA-06, R+2.
  • New PA-07, R+1.
  • New PA-08, R+3.
  • New PA-17, R+2. Note that depending on how New PA-16 is carved out here, it’s possible that you end up with an even more extreme New PA-16, and the tradeoff is that New PA-17 actually ends up somewhere around R+5 or R+6, at the very stretchy edges of what’s gettable for Democrats. (Note that my calculation places New PA-16 at about a D+13, while the current Pittsburgh district is a D+17.)

The other eight districts are still safe Republican districts, with one R+9 (the 13th, in the northwest corner) but the rest all double-digit Republican leans.

But wait, you may say. Republican incumbents must be getting into some trouble with all of this, right? And you’re right, but I’m not sure the needle has moved all that much. Keep in mind that Pat Meehan, Brian Fitzpatrick, Charlie Dent (retiring), and Ryan Costello’s seats were already virtually necessary for the Democrats’ path to retaking the House:

  • Under this map, Fitzpatrick has to defend a suddenly more swingy Bucks County seat, one that was R+2 for him but has replaced outer-ring Montgomery County towns with portions of Northeast Philadelphia proper.
  • Meehan is Toast with a capital T in the 5th district, but with the recent sexual harassment news about him, he was already one of the more vulnerable GOP representatives left.
  • Costello’s fate depends partially on which portion of Chester County is used for the 5th, but he can probably escape into the 8th, an R+3 district here, and run in a slightly more favorable district than the one he was elected to in 2016 (an R+2 district).
  • Dent’s seat also moves toward the Dems a couple points.

None of these changes, in my opinion, moves the needle more than 15% toward the Dems at this time.

But wait, you ask. There must be incumbents who suddenly find themselves in districts with other incumbents, right? And you’re right. But for all the gerrymandering that’s been done in and around Philadelphia, the current representatives have managed to still space themselves out relatively evenly such that there are no incumbent-incumbent primaries in the Philly metro. There are, however, three districts that at least based on residency will pit two incumbents against each other:*

  • New PA-07. Both Matt Cartwright, a Democrat, and Lou Barletta, a Republican, live in this new district. (Which is absurd, because Barletta’s district currently runs essentially from the Maryland border up to his rough area of residence.) Given that the 7th is R+1, perhaps this is a district to add to the list as a pickup opportunity.
  • New PA-12. Both Bill Shuster and Glenn Thompson would end up in the redrawn 12th. However, as was made a big deal in the GA-06 special last year, you do not actually have to live in the district you represent as long as you live in the state. Shuster could easily choose to run in the 15th, a district that includes substantial territory from his old district and would otherwise have no incumbent Representative running.
  • New PA-17 or 18. This actually depends on the result of the special election in old PA-18 (which is going to be run with the old maps), but Democratic nominee Conor Lamb lives in New PA-17 and Republican nominee Rick Saccone lives in New PA-18. Lamb would face Old PA-12 Republican incumbent Keith Rothfus in what would be a light-red district in the Pittsburgh suburbs, or Saccone would face Old PA-3 incumbent Michael Kelly. If it’s Saccone, though, Kelly has the same option as Shuster above: he could run in New PA-13, a district that has substantial territory overlap with his old district and is only a few miles from his current residence.

Ah, you say, but with three sets of incumbents facing off, there should be three empty districts, right? And there are. Here’s the problem:

  • New PA-13 (R+9). As stated above, Kelly could run in this district, one he’s been elected to four times already, rather than face Saccone in a district whose constituents are unfamiliar with him.
  • New PA-14 (R+20). We’re not picking this one up.
  • New PA-15 (R+20). As stated above, Shuster could run here, and even if he didn’t, no.

So our net gain in expected value for 2018 could easily be as low as…0.5 seats or so, mostly on nibbles. (Cartwright gets to challenge Barletta on neutral turf, but he’s already getting that opportunity to defend his seat on neutral turf this year.)

Could the result be better? Yes—this is likely the worst-case scenario map. Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, has veto power over the new maps. But if he vetoes the new maps, the Assembly isn’t the one who will go back to the drawing board (pun fully intended)—it’ll be the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, with input from all stakeholders. And while the court is made up of 5 Democrats and 2 Republicans, there are plenty of reasons to expect that they won’t be looking too closely at the competitive balance of the maps that they draw. (Granted, their opinion on this case, which has NOT yet been handed down, may change this.)

Not to say that this decision isn’t important—it may precipitate more cases under state constitutions if Whitford goes poorly, and I think that if Kennedy is having a hard time deciding how he feels, this case may at least give him pause if he’s seriously considering calling partisan gerrymandering a non-justiciable question.

However, Whitford can, if it comes out well, go further. If we’re committed to ensuring fair representation in the House, compactness and using older arbitrary boundaries aren’t going to cut it. (And indeed, to some extent, chaining yourself to borders of towns and counties, things that can often be as arbitrary as intentional gerrymanders themselves, is going to create a lot of variation on its own.)

The work continues.

*Brendan Boyle, representing Old PA-13, is technically out of a seat as well, as he is officially from Philadelphia and not Montgomery County. However, I am assuming he can run in New PA-04, a seat with no other incumbent, and one with substantial overlap with his old district.

New PA-01: D+34
New PA-02: D+30
New PA-03: R+0
New PA-04: D+6
New PA-05: D+7
New PA-06: R+2
New PA-07: R+1
New PA-08: R+3
New PA-09: R+12
New PA-10: R+10
New PA-11: R+18
New PA-12: R+19
New PA-13: R+9
New PA-14: R+20
New PA-15: R+20
New PA-16: D+13
New PA-17: R+2
New PA-18: R+14

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